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Commissioning Government Facilities

Government design and construction projects are unique endeavors compared to private sector projects. However, just like in the private sector, the definition of commissioning varies all over the board. In some cases, commissioning is taken to the “nth” degree with 100% testing of everything in every system. In other cases, commissioning is a mandated-from-above process which no one really understands or buys into, i.e., a necessary evil to be minimized and tolerated.

Three specific areas in which government projects can differ from most private sector projects are Schedule, Decision-Making, and Low Bid Procurement. These are general project issues that commissioning providers need to be aware of in order to adapt their processes and expectations to a government project without becoming overly frustrated.

Schedule

The schedules on public projects are subject to the influences of funding through public appropriations, bond referendums, budget cuts, and the need to change scope and performance requirements in the middle of design or construction. Many projects have been on the drawing boards for many years unable to progress due to technical challenges and changing requirements. This leads to the next topic regarding the process of decision making in public projects.

Decision Making

We have found that public projects tend to be less efficient than private projects. Getting the job done on time and within budget is not necessarily as important as not making waves and staying abreast of the ever changing political climate.

In addition, and less skeptically, there are many “clients” who need to be satisfied by design and construction projects, and the higher up in government one goes the less flexible those individual clients are. There seems to be denial of the fact that you can’t satisfy everyone’s complete wish list. No one involved in a design and construction project is in any position to tell a Supreme Court Justice, a Legislator, or a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that they can’t have what they want because it’s not in the best interest of the project as a whole.

Government programs are funded by taxpayer dollars and are scrutinized by many layers of oversight. When there are more players, there are always more issues to be resolved. Consensus building is critically important in the public sector and very time consuming.

Sometimes we find streamlined operations and empowered public sector workers but typically management is by committee. Management by committee means more questions and more answers. Progress is slower and tends to be compromised because so many different people need to be satisfied.

One lesson that must be learned if you are going to do public work is to be prepared for a long, drawn-out commissioning plan development process and be flexible. You will attend more meetings than you ever thought possible, shuffle the project team hours constantly, and prepare more documentation than you ever thought you would need.

Low Bid Procurement

The historical requirement that public work be procured from low bidders impacts the nature of, team relationships in, and success of public projects. We believe these impacts are mostly negative, and this column is not the forum for a dissertation on that topic. Although a number of public agencies are dabbling in alternate contracting mechanisms, there is a generation or two of public contractors who may have as much trouble with the transition as the government itself.

The unrelenting drive for low cost has a huge impact on our ability to help ensure that the operations staff has the documentation and training they need to operate the systems effectively. In order to keep capital costs down or to expand a project physically, documentation and testing (traditionally an included but ignored part of every specification) are seen as expendable or not worth enforcing. Time, money and resources are allocated to build but not to document, manage, and verify, which we believe are equally as important as construction for the long term viability of the facility.

In a few cases, empowered civil servants are finding that they can shift money from future operations and maintenance funds into capital projects to help fund, support, and give commissioning the high profile it needs to be successful. This is not an exercise for the weak of heart, but it has been done and, therefore, it must be possible.

Summary

Government project commissioning takes a special understanding of the processes inherent to spending the public’s money. Commissioning does not have to be any different than for public sector projects, but it does need to be introduced, defined, and implemented in a manner consistent with the processes and procedures already in place.

 

COMMISSIONING: GETTING IT RIGHT

Engineered Systems, October, 2003

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
President
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318
rteesmag@QSEng.com